The biggest surprise was Joy. Her profile couldn't have been more boring, but she's one of the brightest stars in the group. So needless to say I didn't call the first elimination correctly. Erin didn't disappoint, but Melissa did. Ana does look amazing; she has a great look for television. The camera just loves her. Rob quickly establishes himself as the bombastic big guy. And we've got (IMO) our villain!
The first episode was all about cold opens. The contestants were marched into a soundstage and promptly made to get up in front of judges Bobby Flay and Giada de Laurentiis and perform thirty-second cold opens right then and there, without a chance to prep. And in addition to providing their own criticisms, they also called on one of the other contestants each time, which led to the first drama of the season.
Erin was called first and did a great job. Melissa described her as warm and fun. Bobby liked hearing about her bakery, but not that she didn't mention what he was going to taste. Giada: The more specific, the better.
Jernard, who started cooking young to attract girls, positions himself as The Chef of Love. He picked up on Giada's advice to Erin and tossed out some mouthwatering chicken dishes, all tied in with love. Bobby: "You like chicken...I like chicken. I wanted you to cook for me." Joy wanted to eat every dish he described. Giada thought he did a good job, especially for a first-timer. Say hello to an early front-runner.
Monterey, despite having on-camera experience, not only botched her global cuisine spiel but then succumbed to nervous giggles. It gave the impression that she wasn't serious about what she was doing. Bobby told her that if she's nervous, it makes the audience nervous. Giada wants to know what makes her unique.
Tregaye was next and struck me as a bit over the top and caricature-ish. Ana was asked what she thought and commented that it seemed, "I got a little bit of a schtick feeling," and the temperature in the stage dropped to near-freezing. Ana nervously whispered, "I've just become the bitch of the show." Thing is, I totally agreed with her assessment. Bobby and Giada didn't echo Ana's criticism, although Bobby told Tregaye that if that was really her attitude, then great, because they want the contestants to be themselves. Surprisingly, Tregaye decides that based on the feedback, she's going to, "Reel it on back and find a balance."
I don't know if every season of this show has to have their token handsome, heavily-accented Italian guy, but they had one the season I watched when cowboy Lenny won, and they have one now. Bobby even joked about it. I felt that Damiano talked about himself and his bakeries rather than his would-be Food Network show, but the judges seemed to like him.
Yaku, all 6'9" of him, does a pretty good job, except for not mentioning specific dishes. Erin describes him as a "bigger than life chef" and Giada agrees, telling him that he's very unique and should work that to his advantage. Bobby thought he held back a bit.
Aaron loves meat. However he's rough and even worse does not love the thirty-second time limit and didn't finish before it did. Giada tells him it wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't great. But she finds him charming (and I agree, although he needs to figure out how to channel it more smoothly) and wants to see more of him.
Food Network Star is also packed to the gills this season with Southern chefs. Meet Havird and his southern accent. He was a bit bland and stumbled through his bit and ran short. Bobby told him to get the energy up and Giada told him he has a great smile and to use it.
Next up is Ana and more drama. Despite having probably more on-camera experience than the rest of the group combined (she was a Real Housewife of Miami for a couple seasons) she totally bombs. Cut to Tregaye asking if there's a paint drying documentary she could be watching instead. Ana did get one good quip in, about her two grown daughters knowing how to make more than reservations. Aaaand more shade from Tregaye, and with that I officially dislike her a lot. If you turn into a vindictive bitch every time someone offers a little constructive criticism, how do you expect to make it on television? There's not much the judges can say about this disaster, but Bobby encourages Ana to get the energy up and, "Take that camera, make it yours". Aaaand yet another snotty remark from Tregaye, because while she may not be able to take criticism, she can sure dish it out. I'm now officially hoping she's the first elimination.
As Melissa takes the stage, we learn that this will be a piece of cake for her because she's filmed hundreds of cooking videos. She starts off pretty good, but quickly goes negative by talking about, "...foods that maybe aren't so good for you." Monterey felt it was "too teachery" and Giada told her that she shouldn't lead with negatives and Melissa seems to understand that, "I really need to rephrase things so that it sounds tasty to the viewers." Yup.
Joy steps up and a star is born. "I'm a former Miss North Carolina USA, but y'all I'm ready to be crowned the next Food Network Star." Boom. Nailed it. She's energetic and demonstrative without being too perky or fake and seems completely comfortable in front of the camera. She wraps her cold open with, "I want to put a little South in your mouth." Cue yet another smartass response from Tregaye, but everyone else loved it.
Rob is the final contestant and promptly belts it out of the park. He starts with, "During the day I'm a lunch lady..." and just keeps on winning until his thirty seconds are up. See Tregaye, this is what a genuine larger than life character looks like. And on top of seeming to be a natural on camera, his food sounds fun, if not particularly the zenith of healthy eating. Everyone loved it. Ladies and gentlemen, meet your front-runner.
The contestants are then informed that they will get another shot at their cold opens. The judges used this concept of "everyone deserves a second chance" to introduce one more contestant, the winner of Comeback Kitchen, yet another competition show (on Food Network! I know, right?) that just finished up putting a group of former FNS contestants through their paces for the honor of coming back yet again. The judges then bring in Martita Jara (from Season 8) and I don't think the contestants knew that was coming. They're either too shocked or think Martita isn't dressed appropriately for the occasion (I'd say definitely overdressed for cooking) because there wasn't a peep of welcome from the group. It was really chilly in there. It doesn't help that, just to twist the knife a little, Martita was backstage the whole time watching their cold opens. She's asked for her opinion and mentions a lack of energy.
On to bigger and better things. In addition to having the opportunity to redo their cold opens, the contestants get to cook for the judges and audience who will be viewing their videos at the dinner-and-a-movie iPic Theater in Los Angeles.
We get to see them cook and there's a lot of fun, complimentary banter among the chefs that makes me miss food service in culinary school (not that we were under that kind of pressure). That's the good news. The bad news is that Ana is apparently a trainwreck in the kitchen. She's a home cook and not used to a professional kitchen, and it shows. The deep fryer is ruining her fries and at one point a pan she's left on the stove catches fire, and not the good kind of fire when you add alcohol to a hot pan. While the others yell about fire extinguishers and calling 911, Ana calmly sets another pan on top of the fiery one, promptly extinguishing it. She then quips, "No more oxygen for you." Aaron describes her as, "A hot mess in the kitchen," and she does seem horribly in over her head. She's either cool as a cucumber under pressure or is really that clueless. We'll find out soon enough.
Monterey is also in trouble. She's cooking black cod, because, "It's almost impossible to screw it up...now watch me screw it up." And that's exactly what happens. It's probably the editing, but it looks doubtful she's going to have a dish to serve, but she plates and hopes for the best.
Now we're in the iPic, where a small audience has joined the judges. Also joining the judges are more judges. Say hello to Tyler Florence and....Valerie Bertinelli? I'm not a fan of Food Network's (and its sister net Cooking Channel's) trend in the past few years of giving out-of-work celebrities who like to cook food shows as if their expertise is on par with that of professional chefs. I can't find Amy Thielen on Food Net anymore, but a lightweight actress is critiquing professional chefs and possibly determining the next step of their careers. Okay, then.
Monterey is up first. Her cold open is much improved and her dish (Miso Poached Black Cod with Baby Bok Choy) looks lovely, so much so that Giada describes it as, "Sort of like a piece of artwork on a plate". For some reason Bobby and Tyler think it's a little too pretty, but Bobby declares it perfectly cooked. So, not the disaster we were led to believe.
Martita comes across really well. Tyler thought she was really polished but Valerie points out that she took too long to talk about her food. Her dish (Black Bean and Apricot Pico Crisp) is well-liked by the judges.
"Hi everybody, my name is Aaron Crumbaugh. I love two things, the first being..." And Aaron blanks and can't come up with the word "meat". After a long, awkward pause, he finally blurts out, "I love meat!" and finishes. He just blanked in front of the camera. Bobby hilariously describes him as an awkward teenager but in a sort of charming way. Tyler describes Aaron's dish (Coffee-Rubbed Steak with Pickled Pepper and Fried Shallots) as "a dish of garnishes". The judges seem to want to like him, but he's going to have to step up his game.
Next up is Erin, who beams her way through an adorable cold open. Martita: "She smiles and you see cupcakes." The judges love her, describing her as genuine and jovial. Her Summer Citrus Cobbler isn't as well received by Bobby and Tyler (they have issues with the texture) but Giada likes it.
Now on to Rob, who I actually thought seemed a little less enthusiastic than in his original cold open, but the judges don't seem to agree. Giada describes him as intriguing with star potential. His dish (Nantucket Crab Cakes with Maple Bacon Cream Corn) is a hit as well. I know it's early, but I'm beginning to wonder if this guy is the next Guy Fieri.
Joy effortlessly knocks it out of the park again. Even Tregaye says so. Bobby: "She's strong." Unfortunately, her dish (Bleu Cheese Crostini with Bacon and Seared Scallop) bombs. The scallops are overcooked and Bobby doesn't like the combo of scallops with bleu cheese. Giada: "Loved her presentation. Didn't love her food."
Jernard, aka The Chef of Love, jolts everyone with a pitch he didn't bust out during the earlier session, and I don't know why: "My grandpa had thirty-two kids. And guess what? I've got nine of my own." This cracks everyone up. Erin: "And you get a baby, and you get a baby, and you get a baby...I'm just like, I don't want a baby." He then continues to blow away the audience with a list of foods he'd like to prepare for them. Tyler says no doubt about Jernard's potential, while Valerie comments that she won't forget him anytime soon. They are less blown away by his dish, Shrimp and Grits with Bacon Cream Sauce. Tyler likes the dish but just doesn't think it's very original.
Ana is next and Tregaye gets the claws out. But Ana has recovered from her previous on-camera disaster. She is poised and comfortable and her pitch is going great, so of course we're treated to a shot of Tregaye looking less than happy about it. She then one-ups Jernard in the memorable lines department when she quips, "Latin flavors are enhancers, they're like a pushup bra for food," - cue Giada looking shocked - then adds, "There's nothing wrong with that." And the audience goes wild. Even Tregaye has to admit, "She was cute." Bobby plays Captain Obvious by pointing out that Ana was the most improved, but it gets even better. Clearly there was some creative editing going on with the kitchen footage, because Ana's dish of Cuban Fritas (Burgers) with Matchstick Fries draws the biggest raves so far. Bobby in particular can't shut up about how perfect her burger is. He even proclaims, "This is going to be Burger of the Month at Bobby's Burger Palace before you know it. I'm totally serious." Whatever happened to the fries (Giada described them as more like chips) apparently didn't hurt the taste and is glossed over.
Now it's time for some humble pie. Tregaye's new cold open is a shocker. She didn't just reel it in a bit, she backed the car over it several times and left it for dead. There's no spark and she doesn't even smile until the very end. They even cut to Rob pretending to snooze. Maybe they could find a paint drying documentary to help him stay awake. However, the judges like her Pan Seared Fish and Grits with Tomato Swiss Chard Sauce.
Damiano and his model good looks and nearly-indecipherable Italian accent are next. Aaron comments that Damiano could be saying anything and the women would all swoon. They prove him right. His dish (Filet Mignon Tartare with Sauteed Fennel) on the other hand is described as "flavorless". Tyler: "Do they have salt in Tuscany?" Bobby: "No." Since his pitch was about making Italian desserts, Giada wonders why he didn't go with a pastry.
Havird comes across as likeable and sweet per Valerie, but Giada points out that with all the Southern chefs, he needs to find a way to stand out. Unfortunately his dish (Curry Cilantro Chicken Salad) makes him stand out for all the wrong reasons. Earlier, while in the kitchen, we saw him having trouble with a too hot grill, and the burnt chicken has a bitter taste that puts off all the judges.
Yaku's new cold open is a bit of a puzzler. While he previous highlighted his San Francisco roots, now all of a sudden he's talking about southern cooking. His Steakhouse Bar-B-Ku gets mixed reviews. According to Bobby, Yaku didn't season his meat, but the spicy sauce is well-liked. And so far, no beard hairs in the food.
Melissa unfortunately has not taken Giada's "don't be negative" advice, as she listlessly pitches remaking "not so good for you food" and brings up her food allergies right off the bat. It's agreed that her choice of words is off-putting, as is her dish (Crab Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce). While Valerie likes the simplicity and crab taste, Giada doesn't like the sauce, with Tyler adding that the peppers were not cooked enough to lose their acidity.
So we return to the soundstage for the first elimination of Season 12.
My top three: Rob, Ana, Joy
The judges' top 3: Rob (Bobby: "You're a little bit unpredictable. I like that."), Monterey (Giada: "You have a sparkle."), Ana (Bobby started running at the mouth again about her burger: "I am totally stealing ideas from that dish.")
My bottom 3: Melissa, Aaron, Tregaye (yeah, I admit it's partially because she was so catty, but I wouldn't watch her show even if she won - I just found her off-putting)
The judges' bottom three: Melissa, Havird, Aaron
My choice for elimination: Melissa
The judges' choice: Havird
Observations: I think Melissa was lucky to escape the axe. I don't care how many YouTube videos she's done, she just didn't have any spark and ignored Giada's advice to make her message sound positive. I also have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how strong many of the contestants are. I could easily eliminate a couple more, but after that it's going to be tough to see some of these people go.
Also, they're doing Star Salvation again, which will pit eliminated contestants against each other, with the winner getting another shot on Food Network Star. Tune in next week to see who will be joining Havird in the Star Salvation kitchen.
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